Data collected by the NUT shows that as of 1st February 2013 there are 2613 (46%) secondary academies and 997 (6%) primary academies. It is difficult to assess the current rate of conversion. Has it increase or declined? Cyclical factors mean monthly conversion rates are difficult to assess. But whatever the rate, it is clear that academy conversion remains the government flagship – and only – ‘school improvement’ strategy.
Yet some Tory’s – most notably in Lancashire – are getting nervous about the impact of this policy. The rate of failure is higher in academies than maintained schools! Gove and Lord Adonis, before him, have made extravagant claims about educational transformation. These claims appear increasingly hollow. The academies and free school programmes remain mired in controversy. The National Audit Office has revealed £1billion overspend. The Academies Commission confirmed that conversion was not ‘panacea’ for school improvement and that there was a real danger of greater inequalities between schools emerging. The role of DfE brokers is under the spotlight as governors complain of bullying. And union members in some academies are responding to bullying management with strike action.
Gove’s strategy for conversion relies on a carrot and stick approach. Off the record threats, the raising of floor targets, the use of OSTED and selective use of ‘underperformance’ criteria are pressuring governing bodies into ‘volunteering’ for academy conversion before being forced. But it is recently emerged that significant ‘bribes’ are being thrust under governors noses. New ‘Sponsor Development Grants, environmental and ‘resource and leadership’ grants mean converter academies could get anything from between £25,000 and £200,000 in additional funding. With threats to the school budgets on the horizon, it is no wonder that schools are tempted to convert.
At the centre of the policy is a messianic Secretary of State. Seemingly impervious to evidence or criticism, Gove is driving the policy forward. A recent leak from within the DfE has revealed that ‘full-scale’ privatisation is on the agenda, in part to cover the over spend by re-classifying all academies into the private sector. This would open the door to ‘for profit’ schools. It remains to be seen whether the Tories will risk this before the next election.
But the aura of confidence around Gove is fading. The GCSE furore, the Ebacc debacle, scandals surrounding his advisors and the continuing uncertainty around brokers and the financing of the academies programme has weakened Gove. Regrettably there has been little sign of parliamentary opposition, with Labour offering no serious critique. Last weekend at the Education Innovation conference Stephen Twigg said Labour was considering how to ‘refocus the academies programme on its original social justice theme’.
The wider austerity programme which is has seen Gove announce plans to cut the DfE staff by a third are adding to the pressure on Gove. Given that the end of road is nigh for the Coalition – an election is 2 years away- we might reasonably assume that the academies programme will fade. This would be a mistake. Gove is motivated by Blair’s mantra that he went ‘too slow on public sector reform’. He also has other ambitions. Recently he has posed as the unlikely champion of the British working class! But it is probably his leadership ambitions and the need to keep the Murdoch clan happy that are driving him on. New and ever more extreme market solutions are real possibility. Anyone doubting this should look at his proposals for the history curriculum!
What does this mean for anti-academies campaigning?
Nothing has really changed. Our role as national network of local campaigns remains central to our activity. Supporting the development of local campaigns keeps the controversy alive. There are a number of active campaigns – Roke, Gladstone Park and Thomas Gamuel to name a few London based ones.
Our media work is also important. In the last week we have inquiries from the Sunday Telegraph, BBC Sunday Politics and others. Journalists, researchers and even authors are looking for new angles to tell the story.
Yet, as has been the pattern throughout, we fight good campaigns, we win the arguments but we rarely stop conversion. There have been some successes – at Petts Hill in Ealing, The Vyne School in Birmingham and Henley Green primary in Coventry.
We are contacted on an almost daily basis by heads, governors, parents and staff. Most contacts don’t lead to a campaign – this usually depends on parental activity. Victories are possible but rare. Even where extended period of strike action is taken – as at Connaught School for Girls – it remains very difficult to dissuade governors.
It is likely that the holding back of wider resistance has limited opportunities for regional and local campaigns. Schools are still fighting one by one, even where there are clearly opportunities for borough wide or regional action. This has tempered the optimism we expressed this time last year. A wider fight by teachers’ unions is likely to make it easier to fight academies. In its absence, the need to join together is obvious to parent campaigns. AAA welcomes the efforts of parents from Downhills, Roke and Gladstone Park to come together as ‘parents against forced academies’.
We are also hampered by a lack of vision for an alternative to the academies programme. New Labour’s policy on education is still not clear. The front bench seems hamstrung by the academy policy. Every bad story about academies probably damages New Labour as much as much as it does the Coalition. As one delegate to a recent Labour councillors’ conference asked Ed Miliband: “How can you have ‘one nation’ when you have no control over schools?” Labour should re-think its pro-academies policy. But it is unlikely to do so unless there is massive pressure from school communities.
National Campaign for Education
At the last steering committee, the AAA endorsed a statement urging the creation of a National Campaign for Education (NCE). We warned that progress would be slow – but it has been even slower than imagined. Complex negotiations and other priorities have limited time for discussion but a start has been made. A planning meeting will happen after Easter.
Office and communications
We have experienced some capacity problems in recent months. The temporary appointment for the replacement of the campaigns & admin post did not work out. Officers have agreed a further temporary solution – utilising someone for 2 days a week, a greater collective effort and some generous volunteer time. This has resulted in the return of the weekly bulletin and production of 4 new briefings. There is still much to be done. The officers group will be reviewing options and will report to the next NSC.